One of Korea’s most loved dishes, japchae seems to be one of those dishes that can be found almost everywhere and at any time. Be it at breakfast, dinner or at a party, japchae is almost sure to be a feature. Like so many national dishes in Asia, food can represent so much more than just a tasty meal; in the case of japchae it is all about colour and harmony. Translating as “many kinds of various vegetables” japchae is made with the five colours that the Koreans believe reflect obang saek or world harmony to you and me. Each colour symbolises one of the five universal directions – North (black: beef/mushrooms), East (green: courgette/cucumber), South: (red: carrot), West (white: onion) and, most profoundly, the Middle (yellow: egg).
World harmony aside, the best news about japchae is that it is banting and LCHF friendly! Okay, so there is a bit of sugar in the recipe, but at its core japchae’s sweet potato starch noodles are a great low carb alternative to the regular wheat variety and taste infinitely better than courgette noodles.
Noodles without the carb-induced guilt; now what could possibly be better than that?
To be honest I was a bit hesitant about trying japchae when I first encountered it at a breakfast buffet in Seoul. I had tried cooking with Korean sweet potato noodles previously and it was a bit of a disaster, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to give it another go. I’m so pleased that I did! Chewy, beefy and incredibly satisfying; from the first bite I knew japchae was going to be one of the first Korean dishes I would attempt to recreate when I got back to my kitchen in Cape Town.
As it turned out, making japchae at home is relatively easy and aside from the sweet potato noodles themselves, all the ingredients are Asian store-cupboard staples. The only real difficulty is that the numerous components of the dish need to be individually prepared and cooked before being assembled, but other than that it is actually pretty straight-forward. Just don’t be tempted to soak the sweet potato noodles for longer than 30 minutes or overcook them as this will affect their texture.
Most of the japchae I had whilst in Korea actually didn’t contain any meat so if you would like to make a vegetarian version of the dish simply omit the beef. If you do, however, want to make a meat version then you can also substitute the beef steak with some mince instead.
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Japchae 잡채 (Sweet Potato Noodles with Beef & Vegetables): Serves 2
- 100g Sweet Potato Noodles
- 2 large dried Chinese mushrooms
- 150g beef steak
- 1/2 carrot
- 1/2 onion, finely sliced
- 1/2 Mediterranean cucumber
- 1 egg
For the noodles:
- 1.5 tbsp. soya sauce
- 1.5 tbsp. white sugar
- 1 tbsp. sesame oil
For the beef & mushrooms:
- 1 tbsp. soya sauce
- 1/2 tbsp. white sugar
- 2 tbsp. spring onion, finely chopped
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tbsp. sesame oil
- 1 tbsp. toasted sesame seeds, ground
- A dash of black pepper
For the carrots:
- 1/2 tsp. spring onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 tsp. garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp. sesame oil
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- Start by soaking the mushrooms in boiling water for at least an hour
- Soak the noodles for 30 minutes in warm water
- Divide the seasoning for the beef and mushrooms into two bowls
- Slice the beef into thin strips of 0.5cm and finely slice the re-hydrated mushrooms – combine each in their individual seasoning bowl
- Cut the cucumber in half lengthways and then remove the seeds using a teaspoon. Finely julienne the cucumber into matchstick sized batons and then brine in a mixture of 1/2 cup of water and 1 tsp. of salt
- Combine the carrot seasoning in a bowl. Peel the carrot and finely julienne it into the same sized batons as the cucumber. Blanch the carrots in boiling water and then drain. Combine the blanched carrots with its seasoning
- Beat the egg with a pinch of salt. Fry the egg on a preheated oiled pan. Once cooked through, set the omelette to one side to cool down. Julienne the omelette into similar sized strips as the carrots and cucumber
- Cook the soaked noodles in boiling water for about 10 minutes, the noodles will become translucent when they are cooked but it is best to test a strand to check that they are actually cooked through. Drain and place in a large mixing bowl
- Drain the cucumber
- In a pre-oiled frying pan, add the onions and flash fry for a few seconds. Transfer to a plate and then repeat with the carrots, followed by the cucumber, mushrooms and finally the beef (fry each individually and in that order)
- Combined all the fried components with the cooked noodles and the noodle seasoning
- Transfer to a serving platter and serve warm